Tag Archives: portal

Playing the Canon’s First Birthday: Five Favorite Games (So Far)

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As I looked back over the past year’s worth of entries, I realized I didn’t play nearly as many games as I thought. This illusion comes from a mix stopping and starting a handful of titles, devoting time to games I put down due to their sheer time commitment (someday, Baldur’s Gate!), and my rediscovery of the medium making every new game feel like an epic undertaking.

So, picking my five favorite games covered on this blog was not nearly the Sophie’s Choice I thought it might be. Sure, there were a handful of darlings I regret not including: The Saturday morning whizzbang joy of Psychonauts. The moody and punishing Another World. Braid’s deeply felt and fully realized puzzle box. But at the end of the day, these five games below are the ones that kept me going as I slogged through lesser titles. These are the games that still prove to me despite the industry’s deeply embedded problems and presiding adolescence, video games are so unique and powerful when the alchemy’s right that they are worth defending and talking about.

I’m still early in my quest. I have so many more games to experience — and there are more by the day, being created by an ever-diversifying community now that technology and distribution has dissipated — that a second anniversary top-five might look entirely different. I am presenting these in alphabetical order, because pitting five things I hold so dearly against each other in some misguided battle of worth seems like a fool’s errand.

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Side Quest: Celine and Julie Go Gaming

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Could Celine and Julie Go Boating — a semi-obscure masterpiece of French cinema — contain the secrets of proper video game storytelling?

Video games need to stop trying to be movies. You’ve heard it here and elsewhere; the tight, thematically coherent structure that reins in your typical two hour film will just never fit the wily, interactive nature of a game that can be fifty times that long. Games are typically better at moment-to-moment plotting and visceral release, waves of emotional catharsis cresting on the backs of set pieces and trial-and-error player accomplishments. These scenarios can move us; at best, they can insert us into an entire world ripe with someone else’s personality. But for any number of reasons — the audience as an active participant; the variations of player experience; the sheer time investment; the, um, general awfulness of most video game narratives — the common consensus is that games can’t do what movies do, and we are hurting our medium and ourselves by still imploring them to. It’s gotten to the point that cutscenes and nakedly cinematic opening credits sequences are greeted with cringes and eyerolls by most discerning gamers. It’s like we want to tell developers, “Stop trying to invite yourselves to the movies’ Grown-Ups’ Table. Just relax. There’s nothing wrong with the Kids’ Table; we can start food fights here!”

For the most part, I agree with this sentiment. Didn’t Wreck-It Ralph just heartwarmingly teach all of us gamers that fostering community is easier when you actually like yourself? (Um, spoilers?) But as someone with no great love of big-budget genre films — from which video games borrow approximately 99.8% of their cinematic ideals  — I sometimes wonder if gaming’s supposed inferiority to movie storytelling is more about misguided inspiration than the true differences between the mediums. Why would games — rambling and easily distracted by nature, or at least since the leap to inhabitable, three-dimensional worlds — try to emulate action and adventure films, easily one of the most tightly scripted and traditionally “plot-driven” movie genres? (The answer, unfortunately, is because man-children like guns and aliens, and usually can’t draw a line between “form” and “content.”) What if there were films out there that could teach us how to deepen and strengthen video game narratives without violating the tenets of the medium? What if we’ve just been watching the wrong movies? Continue reading

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Portal 2 (2011)

If you want the clearest summation of how Portal 2 differs from its predecessor, simply look at the cores. Portal 2‘s final battle – almost structurally identical to the original game’s – finds Chell attaching “personality cores” to bumbling companion-turned-adversary Wheatley, attempting to corrupt his programming and return Aperture Science to its rightful (if still slightly skewed) order. “Wacky” doesn’t even begin to sum up these eccentric, chatty spheres, each offering up so many lightning-fast quips that one is tempted to ignore the boss fight’s time limit and simply enjoy these characters’ ramblings until the facility explodes.

If nothing else, the cores are the purest expression of writer Erik Wolpaw’s gift for deadpan insanity since Psychonauts’ “Milkman Conspiracy” level. Yet for all the left-field absurdity of the rough-and-tumble Adventure Core (voiced by Nathan Drake himself) and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it foreshadowing of Portal 2‘s lunar resolution by the so-called Space Core, the conclusion lacks the thematic and emotional depth of the first game’s encounter with GLaDOS. That confrontation saw Chell disassembling her AI tormentor’s personality cores and stripping her of her most basic emotions. The result was a villain equally harrowing and hilarious, and a final battle that perfectly captured the dichotomous relationship between well-intentioned scientific objectivity and the petty, cold-hearted hubris often lurking behind it that defines the Portal universe. The fight with Wheatley offers no such metaphor, sacrificing it for one-liners and distracting action. I still enjoyed every second of it, but that’s Portal 2 in a nutshell: Bigger and more crammed with (usually wonderful) ideas, more audaciously willing to follow its bliss for laughs and entertainment, but less interested in the thoughtful, dark-edged cohesiveness that rendered the original one of gaming’s most indelible narratives. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2: Episode One (2006)

Looking back, why did people not approach the prospect of yearly Half-Life installments with the same suspicion as a Thomas Pynchon book signing or a Jeff Mangum world tour? (Okay, so every once in awhile these things work out.) Valve’s monolithic, twice decade-defining flagship franchise condescending to become serialized, expansion pack entertainments instead of rare magnum opuses is like your most brilliant, successful longtime friend suddenly frequenting your hometown bar: sure, his presence is appreciated, but wouldn’t you sacrifice constantly seeing him to know he was still on the move toward grander goals? Valve’s desire to create these episodes is understandable, perhaps even noble; both full-length Half-Life titles’ development cycles sound like living hells that would turn any programmer’s hair grey, if he didn’t tear it all out in the process. Plus, a desire to give the world Half-Life at a more frequent and inexpensive rate places them somewhere between Santa Claus and the dudes who invented Napster on my list of generous individuals.

The problem, however, is this is not the Valve way. The company is an ever-buzzing brain trust that isn’t happy unless its members are blasting down the walls fencing in game physics and storytelling, or redefining the distribution paradigm with Steam, or wondering what reality would look like through a stupid-looking pair of goggles. Valve the ideal is so much grander than Valve the developer that when it actually gets around to making a game anymore, that title must stand for the same ambition and playful futurism as the rest of the corporation’s endeavors. The Half-Life episodes were fated to choke on their creator’s chutzpah from the start, dwarfed by the never-ending possibilities and ceaseless perfectionism to which they were once thought an antidote. Continue reading

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Half-Life 2 (2004)

There was a moment well into playing Half-Life 2 where I fell in deep, transcendent love. It was the only moment thus far in my video game excursions where I wasn’t playing a game so much as inhabiting it, invested in the world and experience so viscerally that for one too-brief heartbeat, all hints of artifice and the fourth wall dissipated from my mind. It was after returning to City 17, when Gordon Freeman and his makeshift gang of rebels commandeer a crumbling cement building in a desperate attempt to take down the last few Striders, vicious daddy long legs-like aliens that seem unstoppable on first glance. As the last Strider exploded and toppled, I turned to see the rebels’ expressions change from grim resolve to hope; I stopped in my tracks, absorbed the scene, then ushered Gordon on to the next set of teeth-gritting horrors.

Don’t get me wrong, I greatly enjoyed Half-Life 2 up until this moment, but it was enjoyment born more of appreciation than passion, and I sorely missed the first game’s dark humor and trickier artificial intelligence. The Strider battle was something else entirely, though; not only was it the most challenging section of the game for me, but when seeing my squad cautiously start to celebrate as the music (so sparingly used in Half-Life 2 that its entrance is an instant jolt to attention) swelled victoriously, I felt like an actual soot-and-sweat-covered hero. Continue reading

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